CINCINNATI, Ohio (ChurchMilitant.com) - A Jesuit priest in Rome is accusing an Ohio prosecutor of grave sin for seeking the death penalty for a convicted serial killer.
Father Paul Mueller, superior of the Jesuit community at the Vatican Observatory, wrote a letter to Hamilton County Prosecutor Joseph Deters accusing him of violating Catholic teaching on capital punishment.
"The teaching of the Church is clear: In defending society against evil, it is morally unacceptable to make use of the evil of the death penalty," claimed Mueller. He went on to accuse Deters of the sin of pride and advised him to "chat with a good confessor."
But a canon lawyer who spoke with Church Militant says Mueller is flatly wrong, that he has erred doctrinally, and that Deters has actionable cases in canon law against Mueller for defamation and calumny.
Mueller and Deters went to the same Jesuit-run high school in Cincinnati, and their time there only overlapped one year.
Mueller brought this up in his letter rebuking Deters, writing, "I am disappointed, embarrassed and scandalized that you, not only a Catholic but also a fellow alumnus of St. Xavier High School, have used the platform of your public office to oppose and confuse the moral teaching of the Church in so open a fashion."
Mueller was referring to the recent change to the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Earlier this month, Pope Francis had language against capital punishment, calling it "inadmissible," added to the Catechism. It was previously taught that execution can be an acceptable punishment for particularly heinous crimes.
Church Militant asked a canon lawyer for his thoughts on Fr. Mueller's letter to Deters. He replied, "With all due respect, Fr. Paul Mueller, S.J. patently has no canonical authority whatsoever to reprimand the county prosecutor, whether it be as 'vice-director' of an observatory or as a superior of a house of Jesuits. So he is clearly abusing and exceeding the limits of his canonical offices."
The canonist continued:
The Letter of Cdl. Joseph Ratzinger written in 2004, therefore, sums up the practical consequences regarding this constant teaching of the Church: "If a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible ... to have recourse to capital punishment."
The Jesuit's letter was chastising the county prosecutor for his response to Pope Francis' decision to insert language against the death penalty into the Catechism.
Deters said at the time of the Catechism change, "My dear friends who are priests don't understand what we're dealing with. There is evil in this world and there comes a point where society needs to defend itself."
Father Mueller objected to Deters' remarks, writing in his letter, "I would be amused, if I were not first offended, by your comment concerning your 'dear friends who are priests.' I assure you that I and most other priests are all too familiar with the various evils against which society must be defended."
Church Militant reached out to Fr. Mueller for comment but did not receive a response as of press time.
The canonist said Fr. Mueller's accusation — that Deters is going against the Church — is false defamation of Deters' character:
Thirdly, it would appear that Fr. Mueller has committed canonical defamation of Mr. Deters, a Catholic, by publicly and in writing accusing the prosecutor of attempting to "undermine Church teaching." Mr. Deters likely has at least two actionable claims in canon law pursuant to canons 128, 220, and 1390, § 2 of the Code of Canon Law. Father Mueller owes Mr. Deters more than an apology, he owes him a clear and public retraction of his calumny.
Mueller told Deters in the letter, "Your comments imply that your personal conscience and experience have given you moral insight superior to that of your Church."
According to The Cincinnati Enquirer, Deters says he is convinced he is doing what's right by keeping his community safe, saying, "I know that I am protecting citizens."
In his response to Fr. Mueller's letter, Deters argued, "They don't understand the type of person we're dealing with. If Hitler were alive or Osama bin Laden and they were planning to kill more people, the answer wouldn't be to allow them to keep killing."
Deters is helping seek the death penalty for convicted serial killer Anthony Kirkland.
In 1989, at the age of 18, Kirkland killed a 28-year-old woman. He was imprisoned for the murder but was released in 2003. Three years after his release, he started killing again, eventually taking the lives of four more people by stabbing or strangling them.
He was convicted in 2010, and is currently facing a life sentence for killing his adult victims. But Kirkland is still awaiting sentencing for killing his two teenage victims.
Kirkland burned the bodies of the people he killed. He told law enforcement during interrogation that he did this to the corpses because "fire purifies."
The parents of one of Kirkland's victims were initially hesitant to seek the death penalty because they are Roman Catholic. But when it was revealed that Kirkland is a serial killer, the parents came to Deters saying they wanted their daughter's killer on death row.
Deters faced an uphill battle to get Kirkland on death row, with the Ohio Supreme Court ruling against a death row sentence for the convicted killer.
In July, Deters stirred some controversy when he called for the use of firing squads. He said this in response to complaints that lethal injection is inhumane.
In his position at the Vatican Observatory, Fr. Mueller co-authored a book titled Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial? ... And Other Questions from the Astronomers' In-box at the Vatican Observatory.
A group of Catholic scholars recently submitted an open letter to the cardinals of the Church to correct the pope regarding his confusing change to the catechism on the death penalty.